When I knew that I was actually going to be traveling to Germany, I was met with a lot of questions from people that ranged from ‘are you just going so you can drink beer all the time?’ to ‘but the Germans are so cold, why would you want to go to Germany?’ And I think those questions hit upon this sort of willful ignorance that many people have when it comes to other countries. As Americans, we often are exposed to stereotypes through media, on social platforms, and on video streaming sites like YouTube or Vine, that aim for a laugh. There is one video in particular that I think of where people say a series of words in their mother tongues and the German one is a guy just yelling every word. Ultimately, we accept these presented stereotypes as true statements because we are not exposed to anything else. There are cultural differences between Germany and the USA, but the perpetuation of these stereotypes that pigeon hole the German people into this category of angry and cold and beer-drinking is a harmful symptom of the larger cultural problem Americans have wherein we refuse to be understanding of other cultures.
The present cultural differences that present themselves the most have little to do with the stereotypes regarding German people. One of the most interesting differences is something that I never really thought about until I actually came here and began to see the difference myself; Germans typically use physical money over credit or debit cards. In fact, many businesses do not accept card or have an unusually high minimum by US standards. In the States I never thought twice about taking out my debit or credit card to pay for a $2 coffee and carrying large amounts of cash seemed unusual and unnecessary. I did try to use cash with small businesses because fees can be exorbitant for them to run cards, but with big business it seemed pointless to curb the use of my cards.
I’m not entirely certain why this cash culture is more at play here than in the USA. There are certainly quite a few small businesses here. Most cafes and coffee shops are small businesses. Some grocery stores still boast family ownership. But even so, in many large stores as well the trend is to use cash. It makes me question why Americans are so bent on using debit and credit cards, and what the benefit of card is over cash in American culture.
Another difference I have noticed is the tendency to sit with strangers at large tables in restaurants or beer gardens. When a place is crowded and there is little room, it is not at all unusual to walk up to a half full table and ask if a place is free. Certainly in smaller restaurants, or more intimate settings this would be an unusual request, but otherwise it is not at all uncommon. I cannot imagine asking for a place at someone’s table in the USA. It would be considered, if not rude, certainly odd and odd enough that the knee-jerk reaction would be to say no.
But one of my best experiences at a restaurant here was when there were hardly any places free and I sat down at someone’s table. I was just with one other friend and as we sat and ate, we talked to this older Austrian couple visiting their daughter and her family in Tuebingen. It was challenging to piece together completely all that was said because of the accent, but it was still an amazing opportunity to use the German language and make a connection that I otherwise would not have made had I chose to wait for an empty table.
Ultimately though, it is getting used to little things that I have had the hardest time doing. There are things I notice every day that are always just slightly off the normal path, that make me realize that I am not in Oregon. The weather is on average a little colder and I’ve started wearing a jacket far earlier than I ever would have back home. The locks turn a different way and I still double check that the lock is right, just in case I make the mistake of leaving a door unlocked one day. There are no available water fountains. I think this honestly might be the most difficult one to get used to because I have to consciously fill a water bottle at home every day and I can’t refill once I’m out of water in town.
There are just so many little differences that make me realize that I am actually in another country, living out a piece of my life that I will always be able to remember as an amazing time. I can’t say, certainly, that every moment will be happy and adventurous, but the overall experience is something that I don’t think I will ever forget.